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Hacking into tragedy : exploring the ethics of death reporting in the social media age

Newton, Jackie and Duncan, Sallyanne (2012) Hacking into tragedy : exploring the ethics of death reporting in the social media age. In: The Phone Hacking Scandal. Arima. ISBN 9781845495565

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The phone-tapping scandal blew up with the revelation that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, seeming to demonstrate that the public are much more concerned with the feelings of bereaved families than with the reputations of celebrities or politicians. Therefore any regulation that arises from the UK hacking scandal is likely to include the area of contact between journalists and the grieving. This paper considers whether families actually need more “protection” from journalists and, drawing on evidence from interviews with bereaved relatives, argues that what they actually need is informed access to the media. It also considers “hacking” and lifting material from social media sites, which, while being legal, similarly prompts many ethical concerns. Journalists’ attitudes to using these sites in covering personal traumatic events will be explored using data collected from questionnaires mostly from reporters of five years or less experience. In particular the paper will examine whether journalists consider “virtual door-stepping” to be more or less intrusive than traditional approaches and whether they use these sites to limit contact with the bereaved. It will attempt to assess the benefits and harms of a probable increased usage of social networking sites in the intrusive reporting process.